‘Gaslighting’ means to manipulate a person into doubting their own sanity, through psychological means. It is a calculated tactic which sees the abuser gain more power and makes the victim question their reality.
Gaslighting can happen in toxic friendships too, but for the sake of this article, I am referring to romantic relationships.
Where Does the Term ‘Gaslighting’ Come From?
A play by Patrick Hamilton called Gaslight was adapted to film in the 1940s. A husband goes up to his attic to look for jewels, which belonged to a woman he has murdered. Whenever he turns on the gas lights in the attic, the downstairs gas lights go dim.
The wife notices the lights dimming downstairs, and asks her husband about it. He tells her that she is simply imagining the dimming lights. The husband seizes the opportunity to get away with his crime; that is, by having his wife declared insane. He sets out to convince her and others that she is ‘crazy’. In so doing, he takes every opportunity to create little changes around the home (missing pictures and jewellery, strange footsteps) – and then tells her she is delusional when she tries to point them out.
He slowly isolates her from others.
Although the term ‘gaslighting’ has recently become popular, this form of abuse is not new.
What’s Happening to Women and Girls?
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In Australia, 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15 (and these are only the reported cases). Fifteen years old!! This means we must be looking out for not only women, but our young girls, too.
Intimate partner violence is a leading contributor to illness, disability and premature death for women between 18 and 44 years of age. In Australia, on average, one woman is murdered every week by her current or former partner. In other countries where I work, it is even higher. According to the most recent data from 2017-18, in South Africa one woman is murdered every three hours.
By becoming aware of the signs of emotional abuse, we can catch it early – and prevent this kind of devastating outcome.
Gaslighting is Emotional Abuse – Here’s How it Works
Remember that gaslighting is calculated emotional manipulation, often in the form of undermining, yet subtle, chronic insults. It is usually done when your daughter doesn’t comply with something her partner/boyfriend wants to control. She might often hear terms and phrases like:
- “Oh, you’re crazy!”
- “You’re just imagining things.”
- “You’re remembering that all wrong.”
- “You’re always so dramatic!” ”
- “You’re just being hysterical!”
- “Don’t take it so personally!”
- “I was only joking!”
- “I say those things because it’s what everyone else is thinking.”
- “I was just trying to help you.”
It can happen slowly and insidiously, for so long, that the young woman actually begins to question her own sanity. She begins to wonder if she is in fact ‘crazy’ – which is exactly what the abuser wants: “Look, she’s obviously the problem here! It’s not me.”
The Psychological Toll on Our Young Women
Because gaslighting is sinister, like other forms of abuse, it seeks to harm the victim – and then blame them for it. Your daughter not only has to deal with the initial verbal or emotional injury, she then also faces the accusations that follow. In all of this, the young woman loses her own voice. She loses her sense of trust in herself and her ability to interpret the world. The abuse undermines her self-confidence, sense of worth and sense of safety in the world. The woman can feel confused, mistrustful and become angry – which then feeds the abuser with further psychological ammunition.
The reason it is so confusing is because the accuser is a master at telling blatant lies, often in a very calm and everyday kind of voice. If the abuser does shout, it will usually be blamed on the victim – “You see what you did? You provoked me and so I yelled”.
Supporting Our Daughters and Friends
We must help our daughters and the women in our world, to claim their voice back. Therefore it’s important that we don’t tell her what we think she is feeling. Rather, our aim should be to empower her. Perhaps start by gently saying what you have noticed happening, and then let her know that you believe she is really strong in so many areas of her life (be honest and realistic with this).
Remind her that you are available any time she might want to come and talk, even if it is not today.
At a time she is open to it, you might gently begin to talk about your daughter’s relationship. Try asking her if she feels as though she:
- is always apologising in the relationship. Often when she is not sure why, or to just keep the peace.
- frequently makes excuses for her partner’s behaviour.
- knows that something is wrong, but just can’t pin point it.
- finds herself having the same conversation over and over again, yet can’t seem to convince her partner to acknowledge her point of view.
- asks herself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times a day/week.
- often feels confused and even ‘crazy’ in the relationship.
- lies to her partner, to try to avoid the put-downs and criticism.
- has had trouble making simple decisions because she is afraid of the outcome.
- has begun to doubt herself and her decision-making ability.
- wonders if she is ‘good enough’.
Encourage her, that if she prefers to talk with girlfriends, a life coach or a counsellor, you will support her in this. Not because you believe she is weak, but because it will help her sort through her thoughts and do what she believes is best for herself and in her relationship.
Helping Your Daughter or Friend to Use Her Voice
Something that all of us can do more of, is encourage our girls to use their voices more. And when you disagree with your teenage daughter’s budding opinion, be careful not to cut it down with your own. Rather, you might say something like, “Can you tell me more about that?”, or “How did you come to think that?” or ,“So what you mean is…”
Encourage her to use assertive phrases at home, around the dinner table, during family disagreements, and in her friendships – such as:
- “We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
- “No, Just no.”
- “I don’t like how I feel right now, so I want to finish this conversation later.”
- “I don’t like how I feel right now, so I think we should end there.”
- “I would like you to respect my point of view.”
- “Please stop talking over me”
- “I will have to leave this conversation.”
- “I feel that you are trying to tell me what my experience is. I’m not OK with that.”
- “You need to stop.”
- Even, “Do not contact me again”, when she believes she needs to be safe.
A person who leaves you feeling drained and makes you regularly question your own sanity, is not someone you want around. Our daughters and friends deserve more.
Article supplied with thanks to Raising Teenagers
About the Author: Collett Smart is a psychologist, qualified teacher, speaker and internationally published author. She lives with her husband and 3 children in Sydney, Australia. The heart of Collett’s work is to support and bring Hope to parents of tweens and teens.